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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

New Mexico CrimProf Bergman to Head NACDL

Bergman From a press release:  "Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols and the Jimmy Carter White House are among former clients of Barbara Bergman.  Now the University of New Mexico Law School professor is planning an offense for the defense.  She replaced Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck as president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers this month. That role, and a visiting professorship at Catholic University teaching evidence and criminal procedure, are taking her back to Washington, D.C., for the next year.  She is fully aware that the road ahead is not exactly gleaming.  For openers, there's proposed legislation in Congress called the Streamlined Procedures Act. The bill would curtail access to the courts for virtually all state prisoners seeking to set aside their convictions through habeas corpus petitions.

"It would bury the truly innocent under a welter of state and federal procedural bars (and) undermine efforts to raise the low standard of representation tolerated by state courts," she told the association membership recently. "Inevitably, by keeping the innocent in prison and out of court, it will leave the real perpetrators to commit more crimes."

Bergman views that as particularly alarming in an age when DNA testing and other forms of proof have demonstrated that more innocent people are wrongly convicted than anyone suspected.  Exonerations have proliferated in the last 16 years, largely because of DNA testing, but Bergman warns that isn't a panacea. DNA is a tool available only in about 20 percent of cases.  More, not less, must be done to correct the weaknesses in our fact-finding system, she said.

Bergman, a deputy counsel in the Carter administration, hopes to build on projects launched by Scheck. Those include seeking state legislation to fix flawed photo array procedures and encouraging law enforcement techniques that reduce false confessions, like requiring taped suspect interrogations.  The association will continue to tackle problems with false convictions resulting from forensic labs that do faulty work like that exposed in Texas, Oklahoma, Montana and West Virginia, where one forensic examiner testified about tests he'd never performed.

"You've had the whole problem with the Albuquerque evidence room," she said. "We've got to make sure these labs are independent and neutral and have quality control, and hopefully are accredited. That's another area where you get wrongful convictions, because you have bad evidence."

Bergman also wants to bring new attention to mental health and juvenile issues.  "When we closed down a lot of the institutions, we didn't provide a lot of alternatives for people with mental illness, and in effect what's happened is that our prisons and jails have become our asylums. We house people with mental illness that we don't know what else to do with. Some don't need to be in those facilities and others who perhaps need to be restrained or incarcerated may need more help," she said.  Bergman wants more attention on kids who are being sent through the adult criminal justice system.

Bergman is the organization's 47th president and the third woman to head it. Albuquerque attorney Nancy Hollander was the first woman president.  Over the years, it has evolved from a networking body to one more involved in seeking policy changes. Its membership has grown to almost 13,000 direct members and 28,000 in state affiliates."  [Mark Godsey]

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